“O my Love is like a red, red rose,” proclaimed the poet Robert Burns, but the cherry blossom is the apple of the eye – at least, for the Japanese. Soft and delicate, often pink or white, the flower is the cynosure of all eyes in Japan. People gather to see it bloom – the national flower of Japan. The custom is so widespread there’s a word for it. “Hanami”, which means “flower viewing” in Japanese, has come to mean picnicking under a cherry tree.
The flowers don’t bloom all over the country at the same time. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January, and typically reaches Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. Soft and fluffy, the clusters of cherry blossoms remind the Japanese of clouds; the great poet Basho wrote about “A cloud of cherry blossoms”.
The cherry blossoms are compared to clouds not only because they cluster together but also because they are impermanent. The flowers don’t live long. Their transience is a reminder of mortality, the impermanence of life. That is what makes them all the more precious. Their beauty and transience make them haunting symbols of the Japanese concept of “mono no aware”, which means “the pathos of things”, and which can also be translated as “empathy for things”, the feeling of sadness at the imminence of loss.
The ethereal beauty of the cherry blossoms makes them a sight for the sore eyes anywhere.
In Tokyo, visit Shinjuku Gyoen, a park within walking distance from Shinjuku Station. It has more than 1,000 species of trees. What makes it special is it has both late and early blooming trees.
In Kyoto, take a stroll on the Philosopher’s Path. The quaint stone path follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. The 2-km path is named after the Kyoto University philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945), who used to walk here.
Also famous for the flowers are the Hirosaki Castle Park in western Aomori prefecture, the Mitsuike Park in Yokohama, the Expo 70 Commemorative Park in Osaka and the Takato Castle Park in Nagano. The first cherry trees were planted on the slopes of Mount Yoshino in Nara prefecture more than 1,300 years ago. Now part of a Unesco World Heritage site, picturesque Mount Yushino still abounds in thousands of cherry trees.